When my family and I set off for Iceland, we didn’t quite know what to expect. Like most travelers heading to the Land of Fire and Ice, we prepared for unpredictable weather, packing the requisite puffer jackets, rain gear, and crossover boots, as every guidebook recommends. My only exposure to Iceland had been the hypnotic music of Björk, the country’s most famous avant-garde popstar who shocked the world by wearing to the 2001 Oscars a feathered frock fashioned into a swan. However, it was the 2013 film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, following the epic journey of the fictional Walter Mitty (played by Ben Stiller) across the otherworldly landscape of Iceland, that made my heart skip a beat. Watching Walter traverse snowcapped mountains and longboard through an erupting volcano catapulted Iceland to the top of my aspirational bucket list.
As luck (if you count silver linings of the pandemic) would have it, when traveling from the United States to Europe, Iceland was considered a “green” country, meaning one could effectively avoid an 11-day quarantine in the United Kingdom by traveling 11 days in Iceland instead, free as a puffin to wander and roam the countryside. Wandering and roaming seemed more appealing than being confined to a stuffy flat in Scotland. And so, Mitty-like, we were going to Iceland.
Floating just below the Arctic Circle with a landmass about the size of Maine, Iceland was uninhabited until the 9th century when Vikings discovered the remote island. Next came the Norwegians and Danes who gave Iceland its distinctive Scandinavian character that persists to this day. Icelanders are friendly, welcoming, and tall. Until the 1800s there were no real towns except Reykjavik; even now, most of Iceland’s 340,000 residents live in or near this thriving seaside capital. With lush emerald hills, pristine waterfalls, picturesque villages, and coastal waters full of fish, exotic sea creatures, and whales—in addition to geysers, glaciers, and geothermal baths—the landscape is everchanging. Imagine Big Sur, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Death Valley, along with the wide-open spaces of Montana, cragginess of coastal Maine, and green hills of Vermont, all rolled into one magnificent national park.
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WRITTEN AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY LESLIE NEWSOM RASCOE
This story appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of MILIEU.